5 September marks the tenth memorial of the tragic fire in Beni Suef Theatre that claimed the lives of over 50 people, injuring dozens more. As the fire erupted, the stampede that ensued in search of an exit inaugurated a dark day in Egypt’s history.
The fire erupted during a performance of The Zoo Story, a one-act play by Edward Albee, and staged by an amateur troupe from Fayoum. The performance was part of the Amateur Theatre Festival organised by the General Authority for Cultural Palaces of the Egyptian Ministry of Culture at the Beni Suef Cultural Palace.
In 2011, honouring the lost lives from the tragedy, former Minister of Culture Emad Abu Ghazi announced 5 September as the Day of Egyptian Theatre.
The grief might have lightened its grip after a decade, but the loss that shrouded the lives of many, personally and theatrically, is still felt.
The unsung heros of Egypt's theatre
Ziad Bahaa El-Merghany speaks about the loss of his father, Bahaa El-Merghany, who was part of the jury for the theatre festival in Beni Suef, saying: “That day is so vivid in my mind. We heard the news of the fire at night. My brother, who was seven at the time, and I, aged 13, and my mother — we did not sleep a wink. In the morning we were told about the passing of dad. We never recovered from the loss of this exceptional man. He was not just an amazing father; he brought culture and light to many distant regions in Egypt.”
Bahaa El-Merghany created more than 25 performances for the Authority of Popular Culture. He was one of the dedicated artists who worked with amateur groups all over the country, whose loss is immeasurable for the lives he touched and the lives he might have affected.
Many theatre artists lost their lives in the fire, including some established names like Medhat Abu Bakr, Saleh Saad, Mohsen Meselhy, and critic Hazem Shehata. Their students still feel their loss in deep pain.
Some were young artists making their first mark on the field, such as Momen Abdu, Nizar Samak and Samia Gamal. Apart from the dozens of theatre artists, the list of the deceased included also one fire fighter and one civil defence member.
Beyond the body burns
Alexandrian director Gamal Yakout viscerally knows about this calamity. He himself is one of the few survivors of the Beni Suef Theatre fire.
Ten years and three operations later, he still bears the marks of that fire on his face, hands, and soul.
Yakout, who was recently awarded the Stage Encouragement Award for Theatre, for his production of ‘Al Qessa Al-Mozdawaga Lel Doctor Al-Balmy’ (The Double Story of Doctor Valmy), has worked for years under the Authority of Popular Culture, and directed many plays for their theatre companies.
He speaks solemnly about the Beni Suef tragedy and how he was caught in the fire in that small theatre hall.
“When we first saw the fire, we thought it’s one of the theatrical effects of that passionate little performance. When we realised what was going on, we rushed toward the one exit, as the other exit was blocked due to how the set was organised. There was a stampede and lives were already lost in that stampede,” Yakout told Ahram Online.
Yakout has a blog that recounts his experiences during the theatre fire, his own burns, and the minutiae of his sufferings in the time he spent at different hospitals. It also expresses his feelings as he heard about the loss of his various friends who were consumed by the fire, or died during subsequent treatment.
On his blog he explains that the hall that hosted the event "was not a traditional theatre, and one can say it is a large room. The walls and ceiling were covered with craft paper," describing a room that could accommodate 25 people in the audience but yet on this evening a much larger crowd was allowed in, cramping the small space.
The story of the play is set inside a zoo, hence the craft paper covering the walls, painted to resemble that environment. In the middle of the hall a large mountain made of paper represented a rock in the zoo. The set also included several candles.
Yakout continues: "The main hall entrance that led to the street was closed, and covered with craft paper as well; thus you could not locate the main door from the inside, but there was a small door leading to the theatre lobby that was left half open."
"The performance ended with one of the actors killing his mate. While dragging him, he kicked a candle," Yakout recounts, describing the source of the flame, which at first was not noticed by anyone.
"Suddenly and without any introduction this flame turned into a raging fire," he writes.
Human losses not the only cost
Theatre professor Sobhi El-Sayed told Ahram Online that apart from the loss of people, and a many great talents, the hurt was also suffered theatrically.
El-Sayed has been an avid supporter of the work of Popular Culture. He traveled throughout Egypt teaching technical theatre workshops to amateur companies. He was also attending the Beni Suef festival in 2005.
“I feel that the fire was just yesterday. I know two revolutions took place and many major events happened since, but that day is still engraved in my mind. I remember all the details. It affected my health as well.”
El-Sayed, who is an associate professor of set design at the Higher Institute of Theatre, and who designed many award-winning performances for the Authority of Popular Culture, believes that 5 September 2005 was a major blow to Egyptian theatre.
“Before the fire, Egyptian theatre was going through a real crisis. There were layers of censorship that obstructed the flow of productions. But we had so many amateur groups who were capable of reviving the theatre scene: 300 operating under the various theatre clubs, 200 linked to the Cultural Palaces, over 100 in the Cultural Houses, in addition to the 26 theatre companies in a variety of governorates.”
El-Sayed adds that following the Beni Suef tragedy, all the spaces hosting theatre troupes, and which were mostly build in the 1960s, were closed for inspection and updates in accordance to fire and safety codes. Only a few were renovated, and as such only a fraction of the hundreds of groups were brought back to active theatre life.
Gone but not forgotten
One of the demands of the Committee of the Families of the Martyrs and Casualties, a body that until today follows up on compensation issues, was to honour the names of the theatre artists who died.
This year, the National Theatre Festival — set to open 5 September — is finally issuing three awards in the names of three of the victims: Mohsen Meselhy in playwriting, Saleh Saad in directing, and Hazem Shehata in dramaturgy.
The festival also dedicated its first seminar to paying tribute to those who lost their lives in the fire.
The seminar, entitled “Presence Regardless of Absence,” will take place on Saturday, 5 September, at 2pm at the Supreme Council for Culture, and will include many speakers who will honour the departed artists, who are gone but not forgotten.
— According to reports in the Egyptian press immediately after the incident, there were no fire extinguishers inside the performance room, and the extinguishers collected from the palace were not enough to contain the fire.
— It took ambulances and fire fighters over a quarter of an hour to reach the location and over two hours to contain the fire.
— Following the fire, former Minister of Culture Farouk Hosny resigned, but former President Hosni Mubarak revoked his resignation.
— In May 2006, eight governmental employees, including Mustafa Elwi, former head of the Cultural Palaces Authority, were found guilty of negligence that led to the fire and sentenced to 10 years in prison.
— In the early 2007, an appeal reduced the sentences to three years.
— Further appeals found the accused innocent and released from prison.
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*Erratum (5 September): Following the verification, the number of victims has been changed to "over 50"